What’s driving this latest assault on intelligence is the same obsession that has haunted Trump for nearly four years — namely, that Russia interfered to try to help him win the presidency in 2016. The intelligence community’s reporting to Congress that this pro-Trump meddling is continuing in 2020 so infuriated Trump that he fired acting DNI Joseph Maguire in February and now appears to be muzzling reporting by Ratcliffe and his staff.
Ratcliffe wrote the House and Senate intelligence committees on Saturday that rather than continue with oral classified briefings, his office “will primarily meet its obligation … through written finished intelligence products.” Ratcliffe, himself a former member of the House intelligence panel, argued that this approach would help ensure that information “is not misunderstood or politicized” and would avoid “additional unauthorized disclosure or misuse.”
These bland phrases implied that Congress had previously mishandled information — an allegation for which there’s little evidence. Indeed, according to congressional officials, an unfazed Ratcliffe had indicated that his office planned oral briefings about election security, until that pledge was suddenly reversed in phone calls Friday and in Saturday’s letter.
“I suspect the president found out that more briefings were planned for Congress and had a fit,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speculated in an interview on Monday. Dismissing the claim that written reports would be sufficient, Schiff argued: “If they can rely on carefully worded documents instead of briefings, they can write things that are literally accurate but are deeply misleading.”
Trump’s effort to gain political control over the intelligence community — and suppress reporting about Russian interference — goes back more than a year.
The process began when Daniel Coats was fired as DNI last summer after repeated public disagreements with Trump about the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 race. Intelligence professionals hoped Coats would be replaced by his deputy, Sue Gordon, a CIA career officer. But she resigned after it became clear she wouldn’t get the job.
Trump then appointed Maguire, another intelligence professional. He lasted until February, when he, too, was canned, after allowing a Feb. 13 briefing of the House Intelligence Committee by Shelby Pierson, his election security chief. Trump was irate that Pierson had described continuing Russian influence operations, according to one official who heard his tirade.
Trump said he would appoint Ratcliffe as Maguire’s successor, but the DNI post was initially held on an acting basis by Richard Grenell, a political loyalist serving as ambassador to Germany. During Grenell’s tenure, there was another dust-up over Russian election interference, this time involving William Evanina, a career officer who heads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
Evanina issued an anodyne statement July 24 that described current meddling by the Kremlin: “Russia continues to spread disinformation in the U.S. that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process and denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America.”
After he was questioned by members of Congress what that bland language meant, Evanina issued a second statement Aug. 7 making it clearer: “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ … Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Evanina said that China and Iran were meddling, too, and that they both opposed Trump. That attempt at equivalency troubled some intelligence professionals, who said the Chinese and Iranian efforts were far less aggressive and effective than the Kremlin’s. The damage was done: Trump was embarrassed, his aversion to Congress on election security heightened.
Hoping to preserve some amount of congressional briefing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) floated the idea Monday that the Senate Intelligence Committee might be briefed orally, even if Trump spurned Schiff and the House panel. Rubio shared that proposal with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the senior Democrat on the Senate committee. But several senior members of Congress said that proposal probably wouldn’t fly.
“I don’t think you can cherry-pick oversight based on who you like and which party is in control,” said Warner. He argued that this approach would vitiate the idea of checks and balances that’s at the heart of congressional oversight.
The most troubling result of Trump’s assault on intelligence and its oversight is the debilitating effect on career professionals. When they see top officials such as Coats, Gordon, Maguire and others departing after public disagreements with Trump, they become careful. They begin to trim their judgments, avoid controversial fights, play it safe.
That’s what the politicization of intelligence does — it makes it dangerous for career officers to tell the truth. For an intelligence service, that is the road to corruption.